Matt Plumbridge

UrbanGrowth NSW’s Matt Plumbridge, who joined in November last year as its senior manager, sustainable development, has an interesting background as a champion in sustainable development.

By coincidence, or perhaps not when you think about the way the sustainability world tends to intersect, Plumbridge was project manager at CH2, the headquarters for the City of Melbourne, when chief executive of UrbanGrowth David Pitchford was the city’s CEO.

Plumbridge told The Fifth Estate the connection was strictly incidental, and both men went off to major project work overseas – Plumbridge to the United Arab Emirates and Abu Dhabi to help plan entire cities and Pitchford to London as CEO of the UK’s Major Projects Authority, after a stint also in the Middle East at Jumeirah City in Dubai, before landing in Sydney.

CH2, as it turned out, became internationally renowned and helped shape Australia’s reputation for outstanding work in sustainability, something the industry will be no doubt hoping Plumbridge will be able to replicate in his new role.

There are certainly opportunities. UrbanGrowth has seven major urban “transformation projects” on its books, with the first at Green Square kicking off on Wednesday and several other high profile sites that include Parramatta Road, Newcastle, the Bays Precinct and Central to Eveleigh.

Certainly Plumbridge hopes so, “with the help of the very bright people I work with”.

And certainly the aspirations are there in the official wording, which says his role has “responsibility for managing the development and implementation of strategy and targets to meet the organisation’s aspirations for world class sustainability outcomes across its major urban transformation portfolio, including The Bays Precinct and Central to Eveleigh projects”.

Plumbridge says he hopes to deliver on the expectations but so far is even more tight-lipped than the media statements on the issue.

There’s a sustainability strategy plan nearing and due for release within a “couple of months” but first it needs to be “socialised” through the business and the various agencies.

What he can say so far is that the plan is to create exemplars of various areas of best practice within each project as it unfolds, whether it is Indigenous affairs, district utilities or microgeneration, “so that each project will be an exemplar in the sustainable development agenda,” he says.

“The delivery model is essentially working with experts in different projects and having them develop innovation in the project and then cross-pollinating the various aspects across the other businesses. So keep the intelligence within the business.”

By this he means not having to buy-in expertise – so developing this in-house.

But whether there will be some groundbreaking energy systems or the like are still areas of the strategy that the team is “still bedding down” he said.

“There’s a very strong behind-the-scenes effort.”

And much depends on how each element fits the parameters of cost and other objectives such as resilience as well as sustainability, he says.

The team includes one other person, Cara Brigham, sustainable development adviser, but Plumbridge says, “I like to think my team is across the whole business”.

Plumbridge had his first day on the job at the high profile Bays Precinct Sydney International Summit in November.

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He comes with 23 years of experience and, it seems, a very early passion for the sustainability sector.

He scored his gig on CH2 while he was tutoring for the University of Melbourne on sustainability and after completing a sustainable renovation on his own house that included rainwater capture, recycled water and deep penetration sunlight.

But the big turning point was in the early 1990s during his final year at university where he picked up two degrees, in planning and design, and in property and development.

“My first role was in building a new city on the Hong Kong China border and I saw a truck load of Malaysian rainforest timber coming in. It was during ‘prac’ year of university and I realised I was contributing to destruction of Malaysian rainforest in my action and had two actions I could take – one was to get out of the whole property development business or get good at it and help reform it; and I took the latter more difficult and tortuous route.”

The CH2 role came up not long after that conversion and his return to Melbourne.

This pioneering building, new headquarters for the City of Melbourne, must have had a transformative impact on anyone who worked on it, and Plumbridge was project manager.

It attracted kudos in the end but not before a rollicking amount of scepticism and sometimes outright derision for its black water recycling and sewage harvesting, mist based cooling systems and toilets exposed to the open air. Especially when these sometimes first iterations of the technology went awry and needed to be rejigged.

Sure it was brave, Plumbridge says.

“We were at the pointy end of everything and it was really an exemplary model of leading by example. It’s been a big transformative process and the team was fantastic. We had a partnering agreement and that meant everyone was worked collaboratively and that was much stronger than any contractual agreement. It was a pleasure to work in that environment that was a real challenge in engineering principles.”

Those involved tend to look back on the project romantically, he says, but back then for a small job it packed a much bigger punch and was used globally as a paragon of modern green building.

What does he say about all the criticism it attracted?

“You’re not really implementing any change if people accept it blindly. There will always be a resistance to change. When things are too easy you know you’re not challenging yourself.”

But there was a degree of satisfaction, he admits, to see the people who said things like, “over my dead body” and “a snowflake’s chance in hell” in relation to the building, come back after a couple of years wanting to see the results.

Plumbridge says the engineering used in CH2 inspired the way he tackled cities planning because each element was scalable.

But the biggest lesson to learn was that the leadership shown by the building is not unique.

Australians might not think it, but this nation is “revered overseas as one of the leaders in sustainable development”, he says.

“Often we don’t realise how progressive we are as a nation and we need to acknowledge that.”

There are setbacks, he says, but the Infrastructure Sustainability Council of Australia rating tool, for instance, is seen as best practice and there are several countries looking to use the tool to model similar rating tools.

The Australian sustainability industry will be watching closely to see if at his new role, Plumbridge can once again be part of something world class – and sustainable.

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  1. Mr Plumbridge has a challenge in the transformation t sustainable sydney, with Peter Neman former NSW sustainability Commissioner opposing the WEST CONNEX project as defective now old-thinking .